New York

Dana Schutz

LFL Gallery

The meteoric rise of Dana Schutz, a twenty-eight-year-old painter fresh from the MFA program at Columbia University, serves for many as a reiteration of the way in which the art world mirrors the entertainment industry, with its privileging of youth over experience and its perpetual quest for fresh talent. More interesting, perhaps, is the way in which Schutz’s work has polarized viewers, separating those who applaud her vigorous neo-neo-expressionist canvases from those who are more skeptical, like a visitor overheard leaving the gallery muttering, “This is the new genius?”

The issues Schutz engages have been kicking around for more than a century, and for many her work represents a nightmare return to “retinal” art—sheer eye candy. Narrative is a knotty issue, too: Schutz has described her paintings as “loosely based on meta-narratives” that she creates herself, and which have included images of the last man on earth and of humans apparently crossed with aliens or robots. Figuration is also at issue here, as is the ebb and flow of style. The ’80s saw the rise of neo-expressionism—a response to those initially reacting to the raw, emotive canvases of Abstract Expressionism. Now, two decades later, comes Schutz, brushstrokes plastered on her sleeve.

Schutz’s surfaces are thick and lush, almost edible looking. But painters have long likened paint to food. The young artist’s greater contribution is in her twisted narratives and the way in which her figures register with the viewer. Where de Kooning’s women were often described as appearing as if they were about to devour the onlooker (or any male in proximity), Schutz takes things a dramatic step further by depicting figures devouring themselves. So while in de Kooning the consuming gaze of the viewer is reversed, in Schutz it is effectively nullified.

Schutz’s recent show at LFL Gallery (now Zach Feuer Gallery [LFL]) included several of these self-devouring protagonists. Face Eater (all works 2004) features a figure whose eyes and nose have been sucked into a toothy mouth located where his forehead should be. The bug-eyed figure in Devourer looks as if he or she is eating his or her hands—or forcing him or herself to vomit—while the subject of Eye Eater crouches in a verdant landscape, preparing to consume a baseball-size orb plucked from her own socket. It’s gruesome stuff, but Schutz renders it all with a cheery palette and winsome earnestness. This is regeneration, after all—a version of Extreme Makeover in which people not only self-destruct but can be rebuilt, like the figure in Boy who lies on a table receiving a new head, or the one in Twin Parts, who stockpiles alternate body parts.

Despite a measure of abjection comparable to Cecily Brown’s or Barnaby Furnas’s, and a faux-naïf crudeness reminiscent of Brian Calvin or Christoph Ruckhäberle, Schutz also harks back to older artists like Jörg Immendorf and Philip Guston, and further to Gauguin and van Gogh, Erich Heckel and Paula Modersohn-Becker. Her work has repeatedly been characterized as eccentric, but it’s still just figurative painting. What the artist has shown in her short career, however, is that a “strange” vision can also be a canny one. She reconfigures the relationship between artist, viewer, and what has sometimes been regarded as the “innocent,” impotent third party, the depicted figure itself. Just as the artist and viewer complete the painting, Schutz gives her subjects a new degree of control, so that they, too, are involved in the process of destruction and creation.

Martha Schwendener